Saturday, June 23, 2012

Road course ringers coming up empty at Sonoma

Boris Said has finished as high as 6th twice at Sonoma in a Cup car, but has never won
in the series at the 1.990-mile road course. Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images
As the Sprint Cup Series readies for its first road course race of the season, the talk usually turns to road course ringers. That’s the term for drivers with a road racing background who are brought in to race at the two tracks – Sonoma this weekend and Watkins Glen in August - where turning right becomes a necessity.

Race teams hire road course ringers with the goals of a good finish, keeping an entry in the top 35 in points or even winning the race. While the ringers have accomplished the first two options, they’ve yet to master the third. In the 23 Sprint Cup races Sonoma has hosted, a road course ringer has yet to win the big prize.

So why haven’t the ringers found victory lane? Some of NASCAR’s top names offered a few theories Friday at Sonoma.

Road course ace Marcos Ambrose, pole winner for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, said while road course ringers come with a specialized background, they’re simply not acclimated to the unique handling of the Sprint Cup racecars.

“I think you would struggle to find another racing car that handles quite like these NASCAR Sprint Cup vehicles. They are a beast to drive,” Ambrose said. “Most road racers are used to a car driving them around the track pretty much. A stock car won’t do that around here. You have to really handle it and drive aggressively and get the most out of it.

“What other racing car has a truck arm rear suspension with a spring half way inboard from the tire? What other car has steel wheels? What other race car has way too much power for the level of grip? It is one of the heaviest race cars you will ever drive. 3,500 pounds is a seriously heavy car. That is what makes the sport so great,” Ambrose said. “I am not surprised that road ringers can’t adapt to these vehicles because they are very unique.”

Kevin Harvick said that running just one or two Sprint Cup events a year isn’t enough for a driver to get a handle on the racecar and outrun a more experienced field.

“You can’t race these cars once or twice a year and be competitive because they are hard to drive,” Harvick said. “In order to get the speed out of them, they are not like a Grand-Am car or something with a lot of downforce, or something with sequential shifters - these cars are just hard to drive. I think a lot of people that come in and have driven the cars will tell you that. I think the road race guys will tell you that.”

If a lack of familiarity with the Sprint Cup car hinders the road coarse ringers, then Cup regulars possess the clear advantage. They already know the ins and outs of the racecars they drive every week.

Though they turn right just twice a year, the Sprint Cup drivers also know the value of winning any race, including a road course. With points on the line, more series regulars have figured out how to manage the changing elevation, twists and turns of road courses, as well as how to put themselves in place to cement good finishes. As a result, the competition has increased dramatically across the field.

“The level of talent is exceptionally high,” Ambrose said. “You think that half the field can’t get around the road course but that is a fallacy. That is not right. These guys know how to get around here and are seriously good. We race against each other every week and we know who we can push around and who we can’t.”

Harvick said, “There is not near as many people that aren’t good at it anymore. Everybody puts a lot of effort into the road race stuff because it still pays the same amount of points that you get every other week, and especially during this time of year you don’t want to be the guy that is not very good at it and give away a hundred points or 20 points on a particular weekend when you come here. I think you have to go test and the team has to put effort into the cars.

“There are just not too many guys; even the guys that aren’t good at it are good at it now. They may not be great, but they are competitive and can put themselves in position to have good finishes,” Harvick said.

As more Sprint Cup regulars build up their road course skills, that leaves fewer competitive rides available for the ringers. Running with under-funded equipment adds another road block between the ringers and victory lane.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 2010 Sonoma race winner, said there is “a lack of opportunities” for road course aces like Boris Said, Scott Pruett and Ron Fellows.

“Those guys were go-to for a long, long time. They have some opportunities, but not the top-tier stuff any longer,” Johnson said. “If you look at Marcos (Ambrose) and Juan (Pablo Montoya), they are road course specialists for sure, but they are oval guys now so I don’t think you put them in that category.”

Denny Hamlin echoed Johnson’s sentiments, pointing out that the open seats with smaller teams just aren’t competitive enough for the ringers to slide into victory lane.

“I think all the good cars that are competitive and can win the race — they’re better than what the road course ringer driver can bring to a mediocre team,” Hamlin said. “There’s only 25 cars or so that are going to win, have a chance to win when we come here, and it’s just those road course — those guys are all running for points and no one is going to get out of their seat to give the road course ringer an opportunity.

“Even before that, these guys are all so good now, there’s no real advantage to come in here and think that they’re going to whoop up on everyone,” Hamlin said.

Three road course ringers will compete in Sunday’s race at Sonoma. Said leads the way in the No. 32 Ford for FAS Lane Racing, plus Chris Cook, an instructor at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, in the No. 19 Toyota for Humphrey Smith Racing and Trans-Am champion Tomy Drissi in the No. 10 Ice Age Continental Drift Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Trans-Am champion Brian Simo, in the No. 30 Toyota for Inception Motorsports, did not qualify on time to make the field.

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